About the Author

Joel R. Johnson

In 1974, Carol Ann Johnson nee Mayes and Richard Barry Bobo-Johnson were living in Concord, New Hampshire when I was born in the middle of an intense law-school exam. Richard, a Vietnam veteran and law student on the G.I. bill at Franklin Pierce University, and my mother Carol, a graduate of Michigan State University in education landed in New Hampshire for grad school. My siblings and I grew up in the woods and fields and farms with barely any idea we were black. I even attended a one-room schoolhouse for a while. Then my parents decided to move to Cleveland where my Mother grew up. Her mother was sick and it was time to go “home.” My parents dropped us in the middle of inner-city Cleveland in the Mays family home built by hand by my great-grandfather. Unfortunately, Cleveland in the 1980s was hard-hit by poverty. It was a rude awakening for the Johnson family. But we were so independent we eventually explored every part of that city. We found the MetroParks system and played in the National Junior Tennis League. There’s nothing like Summer nights under the lights in the city with smack of tennis balls and the Run DMC pumping out of ghetto blasters. Under watchful and loving parents, both educators, we survived and thrived, and eventually, we convinced our parents to move back to the country where we could once again roam the woods. It wasn’t easier in the burbs, misfortune lead to tough times for several years, near-homelessness and food insecurity, before we uprooted and headed East to my father’s homeplace. We landed on the shores of Ocean City NJ with newfound financial stability and loving family close by. In OC I learned to love theater, journalism, and poetry and found myself. Participation in arts leadership programs set me on a path to Swarthmore College and eventually, graduate school at Northwestern University.

The Johnson family; L-R, Carol Ann Johnson nee Mays, Christopher, Richard Johnson, Joel, Alicia, Joi, Blake.

I’m the first child of Carol and Richard, but not their first child. Each had a son in a previous marriage, my older brothers Blake William, and Orin Kendall. My younger siblings also born in New Hampshire, are Joi Adria, Christopher Mays, and Alicia Edith.

Since Swarthmore College, I’ve been married and divorced and remarried. I’ve lived and worked in Philadelphia, Chicago, London, New York City, and now Washington, DC. I have a degree in theater from Swarthmore College, a Master’s from the Communications school at Northwestern University, and I studied at the University of London. I’m a veteran “ad guy” of large and small advertising agencies, and currently a partner in an ad agency in DC. Today I live just outside Washington, DC, married to Kyong Ah Yun,  who was born in Seoul Korea, and we have one young daughter.

Since the early 2000s I’ve researched all my family lines sometimes up to 8 generations. My genetic research shows I’m primarily descended from West and Central African peoples (Bantu) from Cameroon, Congo, Benin/Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and about 1/4th from European peoples stretching from Sweden to Scotland, from France to Wales.

I have used a variety of online research tools including the big four – Ancestry, FamilySearch, GedMatch, and MyHeritage – but also many online databases of historical societies, state and national archives, university and college libraries and resources, newspaper archives, county records, written and oral histories, and special collections. Often, I’ve engaged professional genealogists and historians to travel to records I can not reach. I also use contemporary historical nonfiction, history books, county histories, and maps to conduct research. I can’t stress enough how valuable it has been to also uses blogs, podcasts, and video from professional genealogists to gain new research tips and methodologies, insight into collections, and generally, to understand the challenges and pitfalls of family research as well.

DNA research has opened new avenues of research and enabled me to connect with new family members, to be found my other family historians. In one recent instance, it helped reunite members of my family separated by adoption. I ’ve begun to visit LDS Family Research Centers to get access to documents not posted online. I travel to archives, libraries, and cemeteries regularly. Finally, I would describe myself as “intermediate” genealogist,  by no means an expert and always willing to learn more and open to connecting. My GedMatch # is A350849.

My project with the family genealogy began really as a way to develop more pride in who I am. I was responding as a witness to other African Americans discovering their own family trees inspired by books like ROOTS and shows like African American Lives and Who Do You Think You Are? and the remarkable stories. The search for pride during genealogy though has become a kind of effect and less a cause some 15 years later. As I got deeper into the research two things really struck me – one – that I wasn’t the only one with a stake in our genealogy and indeed, another family historian had already started this project – and two – that the search for one’s ancestry is, in fact, more than a search for a personal understanding about oneself. It inevitably leads to a broader understanding of history and the world, in particular, American history and our place in it. I think that understanding becomes knowledge, and knowledge is power.

I own a great debt to my cousin Patricia Marion Mays-Thompson of Cleveland, Ohio has for over nearly forty years worked to document the Mays family from their recorded origins in Greenville, South Carolina. She documented the earliest Mays family through visits to SC, the national archives, oral history, and study of available documents. Her book, I Came By Way of Somebody, is a 300-page genealogy of my maternal line and the first source I turned too. She has produced and updated the Mays-Sherman family tree for many years with the help of her children. Without her work, I would not have the foundation of my own genealogy.

Pretty early on it became obvious that I was entering a new field, with new terms and definitions, methodologies and practices to learn. I did not use a single book, article or author or method of conducting genealogy to guide me. I eagerly use several and am always looking for new guides and reference material. I took strong advantage of the tools of my time – primarily internet research, the digitization of archives and databases, along with historical societies, and of course the two big online family research tools, Ancestry.com, and FamilySearch. I particularly found helpful the books, online video series, podcasts, and video lectures by genealogists – particularly black genealogists like Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Bernice Bennet, Dr. Melvin Collier, Shannon Christmas, Nicka Sewell-Smith, Toni Carrier, Angela Walton-Raji – who shared inspiring stories, tips and methods, and the tools to do the work with the understanding that as an African American, I would have to approach some aspects of my genealogy differently. The primary lesson from black genealogists has been to understand the history and context of the times my ancestors lived in. We’re lucky to go from merely being history detectives to scholars of the American project. With this knowledge, we are able to express how America is bound up in the creation of race, white supremacy and systemic oppression, and how it impacted my ancestors through culture, economics, religion, and politics, love and even death. These studies have helped me identify the factors and influences upon my ancestors that impacted their daily lives, from how they lived, worked, and loved, to their major movements across the country –by choice or otherwise.

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